Mary Ann Franks, MPH, Public Health Communications Associate
The International Association for Indigenous Aging (IA2) joins an astounding (est.) 9.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives from 574 federally recognized tribes in celebrating Native American Heritage Month this November.
The month of recognition and reflection follows a Biden administration proclamation to establish Indigenous People’s Day, October 11. The first of its kind.
That proclamation begins with a powerful assessment of Native contributions. “Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures—safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations.”
President Biden follows (perhaps a first for a sitting American President) that “for generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures.” He commits to “a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.”
In his concurrent acknowledgment of Columbus Day (set forth by Congress in 1934 and affirmed in 1968), he recognizes the atrocities inflicted upon Indigenous communities and Tribal nations at the hand of European explorers.
The most recent proclamation of National Native American Heritage Month notes the perseverance, strength, and historic contributions of American Indian and Alaska Native people. We are heartened as we reflect on the many examples of success and resilience, some that may not be the legends of storybooks, but are shining examples, nonetheless.
Renowned individual Native contributions over the decades include John Herring (Chickasaw)—the first Native American in space. Herring, a retired Navy aviator and NASA astronaut, was a crew member aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in Nov. 2002. During the mission delivering cargo and crew to the international space station, Herrington performed three spacewalks. He carried the Chickasaw Nation’s flag, a braid of sweetgrass, two arrowheads, and six eagle feathers to honor his heritage.
Other remarkable contributions came from Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha tribe). Picotte was the first Native woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. in 1889. Growing up on her Omaha tribe’s reservation in Nebraska, she once watched a Tribal member die as a local white doctor refused to provide her care. Picotte eventually returned to Nebraska to practice medicine, setting up a private practice serving Native and white patients. In 1915, just two years before her death, she opened her hospital on the Omaha Reservation. This had been her life’s dream. Today, the hospital is home to a museum honoring her legacy.
Fast forward to March 18, 2021, when now Secretary Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. This follows her stint in Congress as one of the first elected Native women. From humble beginnings in New Mexico as a single mother on food stamps, she eventually earned her law degree from the University of New Mexico. She ran a small salsa business before her election to the Board of Directors of one of the largest Tribal gaming enterprises in New Mexico.
The past 18 months have seen landmark increases in funding. From added funding for tribal elder services programs, catch-up funding for the battered Indian health system to first-time-ever appropriations for Indian Health Service elder-focused work on dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Following the devastating crisis that COVID-19 has wrought upon our communities and people, it is essential to stop and reflect on our history and successes. However, we must take care not to pause too long. There is still much work to do. Particularly on our unending pursuit for social and health equity for our Native elders.
“Native American people—and our nation as a whole—are best served when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities and when Federal officials listen to and work together with Tribal leaders…,” according to President Biden.
Join us throughout the month as we acknowledge Native American Heritage Month on social media and elsewhere. As well as later this month, when we celebrate Native American Heritage Day, passed by Congress in 2009.